I resist dodging as my mother licks her hand to smooth down my hair for at least the third time this morning. She says, “Listen, and be attentive—and try not to ask too many questions, dear.”
I have but one question on my mind at the moment. “May I go now?”
“Yes, you mustn’t be late.” Yet Father sets his hands on my shoulders and gazes down at me for an extended moment before giving me a nudge to the door.
I’m off like a hound at the hunting horn, avoiding from practice the broken cobblestones that tip unwary walkers into the bordering mud. The houses hang out over the streets with their shadows and laundry lines, a channel leading me to my destiny. I wave to the goose girl guiding her flock out to the meadow and call a hello to the blacksmith firing up his forge in the cool of the morning, but I slow only at the square—where she is.
I glimpse her behind the bakery counter loaded with breads and scones. Oh, if only I could cross that barrier to get to her side! She doesn’t see me, trading pastry for coin with a wimpled woman, and that’s just as well, because even though I tell myself at each passing that this time I’ll stride over to say hello, the words somehow scatter like sheep across the hillside, and I can’t corral them back. No time for that vain effort today. Today is the day of magic—of charming dragons and realizing dreams.
Crossing the square takes me to the alchemist’s house, which leans away from the neighboring building like a hunched old man with a pointy hat of warped wooden shingles. The dwelling winks at me with windows of diamond-shaped leaded glass as I rap on the door. I’m bouncing on my toes, making my new shoes creak, when the door opens. I snap to attention.
The alchemist stands a little straighter than his house, with wild wisps of graying hair sticking out from behind his ears even though the top of his head more resembles a great ostrich egg. His blue robes hang about him with mystery and capacious sleeves as if ready to bring forth endless treasure troves of wonders. “Ah, my new apprentice. Come in.”
I follow him into a workplace filled with the smell of dust and exotic spices punctuated by ink and candle smoke. The latticework of the sunlight through the windows arrays itself over a set of ceiling-high shelves covered with rocks and plants and metal devices that steal my breath. What powers must they hold? A table hewn of half a broad oak stands before them, supporting a chaos of glass bottles and books. The magic floats all around like dust motes on the air, I’m sure of it. But how to reach out and catch it?
The alchemist settles into a high-backed chair wedged between the shelves and the window frame and steeples his hands. “So, boy, your father tells me you want to be an alchemist more than anything in the world. Why is that?”
I yank my hand back from a device with dozens of spinning concentric circles to meet the alchemist’s gaze again. “So I can do magic!”
“Magic?” He lifts his eyebrows, and a twinkle of amusement lights his eye. He’s not as old as I thought—most of his wrinkles come with the expression, and would disappear right along with it.
“Yes, to cast spells and perform wonders.” The other kids in the town laugh at talk like that. We’ve spent every afternoon of our whole lives training for the work our fathers have done for generations until all the mystery and wonder is gone. But with this apprenticeship, I make my own choice to break out of the known and experience something new—something special.
“And that’s what you think alchemy is? Magic?” He stands and moves to the table. “Very well, I suppose we should begin your education, then. Stand here.”
He points next to him, and I jump to the spot. Maybe a bit too close, since his elbow bumps my upper arm, and he glances at me from the corner of his eye before reaching for a dark stone unlike any I’ve seen. It doesn’t catch the light any more than common fabric.
“Alchemy is an art of discovery—of finding the potential within disparate things and combining them to a new whole.” He places the black rock on a stone board and takes a pestle to it, breaking off tiny flakes that glitter in the sun. “The Creator embedded in each mineral, plant, and creature special properties—”
“Magic!” The word pops out of my mouth before I can stop it.
His hands halt, and his expression darkens like the threat of a thunderstorm on the horizon. “Special natural properties, which when used in proper conjunction with each other create a unique effect. All of creation is a mystery of untold treasures waiting to be puzzled out.”
“Is that why you traveled so much? Father says you were seldom here until the past few years.”
He pauses to regard me again. Bother, I’m interrupting again instead of listening, like Mother advised. His words paint a shimmering portrait of potential in my head, but every time I try to get a closer view, I knock the painter’s brush off course. I fold my hands and press my lips together in an impersonation of the attentive, quiet apprentice my parents urge me to be.
“Yes, I traveled many parts of the world over the course of countless journeys, from the southern islands to the northern mountains. Whether it’s the shell of the rare pink cliff snail—” he produces the item as if from nowhere, “—or the bark of the common willow tree—” he gestures to a full ceramic bowl on the table, “—all things have a purpose, a special use. When we discover them, we can unlock their power. Now do you understand?”
I refrain from blurting out “magic” again and just nod, which seems to satisfy him since he takes up his pestle again. After a moment, though, he hands it to me and scoots to the side. My hot fingers wrap around the cool smoothness of the tool—my first touch of magic! I imagine some great plume of smoke will issue forth to form pictures of future wisdom, but instead ordinary granules of black crumble off the rock and fall to the stone board just as before.
“This mineral comes from the lake region. It is very reactive when placed with other elements, bringing energy and spark to solutions….” He gestures in the air as he talks, as if conjuring images of his subjects. At one point, he stretches a finger out toward the window, and for the first time, I peer through the sheets of sunlight across the square. The bakery with its bread counter stands out to me amid the other buildings, marking where she, too, must still stand. The ripples in the glass like a frozen stream conceal her, though, and I squint to see. Maybe now that I’m an apprentice, I’ll have a few coins to spare on a pastry from her. I imagine the soft brush of her fingers as she hands me a strawberry tart.
The alchemist clears his throat. “I said, any questions?”
I jerk. My hand tumbles the rock against a vial that pirouettes and collapses prostrate after its dance, and the cork flops out to release a flood of purple liquid. “I’m sorry!” I fumble to right the vial. “I’ll clean it up!” I reach for a rag and a bucket of water at my elbow.
I dip the cloth into the water before he grabs my wrist.
“No water may touch that tincture!” He glowers at me. “It’s taken seven years for my eyebrows to grow back after the last incident, and I’m still waiting for this!” He indicates the bald top of his head with his free hand before snatching the cloth from me.
He releases my wrist, and I stumble back, not because of any harshness in his grip, but revulsion at myself. So much for the attentive apprentice—I nearly blew up myself and my master!
The alchemist tosses the wet rag onto the window sill with a huff of air and proceeds to mop up the purple liquid with a dry one that he stuffs into a lidded box. When I tipped over my father’s shoe polish, he hollered like an attacking barbarian horde, but the alchemist doesn’t say anything more, which bodes even worse. I stand against the shelves with my elbows pressed to my sides, fearing to breathe. The black powder I’d crushed now coats the table and floor, and even worse, the information he’d shared has flown straight out of my mind, too.
He takes stock of the damage and at last mutters, “And you polluted my water, as well.” With a shake of his head, he thrusts the bucket at me. Little specks of black float in it. “Dump this out in the ditch and draw fresh water. I’ll clean this up.”
I scamper away with the bucket and close the door to hide from his gaze. First, I discard the water in the gutter at the edge of the street, then tiptoe in front of the alchemist’s window to get back across the square to the fountain. I rinse out the bucket a few times before refilling it. How will I ever experience magic if I’ve failed my master so soon? I’ll have to prove myself to earn his forgiveness.
The heavenly smell of baking wafts past me. I turn around. The bakery stands not four yards away, and in it, my dear distraction. I can’t help but repeat my mistake in gazing at her. The other boys wouldn’t call her the prettiest girl in town. She has a mole in front of her left ear that she usually covers with her hair, but now she’s forgotten and tucked her ebony locks back, and it winks at me as if we’ve shared a secret. And her eyebrows, dark and heavy, crouch low over her eyes, like they’re guarding a hidden treasure. But when those solemn eyes look, they really look, as though they’re drinking deep of everything into the well of her soul. Her eyes draw me in now. But Father always tells me it’s not polite to stare, and I duck my head out of habit to dodge his reminding finger rap on my skull.
She lifts a hand as if to stop me from running back to complete my errand. “Are you helping the alchemist?”
My ears heat up as if sunburned. “I’m more of a hindrance.” I watch the ripples in the water bucket.
“So you’re his apprentice now?”
“If he keeps me on.” I peek back at her, at those captivating eyes. She never smiles—not since that day her father pulled her out of classes a month early to put her behind the bakery counter. Oh, if I could see her smile, I would surely glimpse heaven.
“I’m sure he will. You always caught on fast in school. I’ll never forget how you recited the Fourteen Commandments in alphabetical order instead of numerical, and Professor stared at you like you’d swallowed a toad.”
Now my cheeks burn, too. “Well, you were so good with arithmetic. No one else could keep up with you ’til you left.”
I’m doing it—I’m talking to her, like I haven’t since classes ended. And now, self-conscious, my words go running for the city gates. What do I say now? Am I staring too long? Her expression has clouded. What did I say wrong?
Her voice drops lower. “Yes, my mother isn’t able to take coins or do the ledgers now.”
“I’m sorry.” What a fool, to bring up something so painful! No wonder she had to start her apprenticeship earlier than most. The sunlight glints on the alchemist’s window. “I should get back. Nice to talk you—I mean see with—I mean—Bye.”
I take off across the square. The water sloshes up to the bucket’s rim due to my hasty gait. My shoes creak and start to chafe. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn untested ones, but they’d marked the specialness of this day—the day I no longer wore my brothers’ hand-me-downs and literally walked in their footsteps into the same predictable existence. And I’d wanted so much to impress my new master, who would finally bring that experience of the new. But first I upset the alchemist and now her—can I do any worse?
Somehow, I have to make everything right.
I knock before entering the alchemist’s house and set the bucket in its place. He sits in his chair. The floor and table are clean—in fact, he’s cleared a lot of the bric-a-brac away, presumably to keep me from knocking it over. His shoes poke out from under his robe, scuffed and covered in the black dust. That, at least, I know how to fix. I pull out my handkerchief and kneel before him to polish his shoes, just as I have for so many of my father’s customers. My own footwear resists the bending, still stiff with newness, and I remember.
“My father says it takes awhile for new shoes to learn your feet and mold to your movement, but once they do, they’ll serve you well for many seasons. So even though I may be a pinch now, I’ll do my best to learn your steps, sir.” I finish cleaning off the leather, but I still don’t want to see his disappointment when he dismisses me and crushes all my dreams of magic. My hope that he’d retain me can’t rally enough to lift my head.
“Stand up, boy.”
I do, which means I can just glimpse the bottom of his face through my eyelashes. He doesn’t smile, but he doesn’t sound angry, either.
“I accept your apology. Alchemy is too dangerous and beautiful an art for one to act hastily. This is your first lesson: take time to listen and observe before you act. Now let us see if you’ll make a suitable apprentice yet.”
Like a snap of lightning, I jolt straight. He’s keeping me on after all! “Thank you, sir!”
He waves his hand and moves to the table. “We’ll start with something a bit less hazardous, shall we?”
He then talks me through the value of a host of plants as we pull them out of jars or hanging bunches to slice, grind, combine. They’re common herbs, ones I could gather in the meadow or buy at market. Their many benefits surprise me, but I still know nothing of their powers. I keep waiting for him to point out one that transforms the powder into a potent potion, but he never indicates anything of the kind. Perhaps the magic lies in the process itself, so I mimic every hairsbreadth of movement, even emulate the positioning of his fingers with the left pinky crooked out just a tad. None of this strikes me as magical either, and though I’ve done so well at keeping my mouth shut, it pops open and the question fires out before I can catch it. “When do we get to the magic part?”
“Do you draw a symbol of power in the air or say any special words when you put in the last ingredient?” The idea comes from a childhood puppet show, not the best source, but surely it carries some truth.
“The only special words I speak over my concoctions are prayers to retain my eyebrows.” He waggles them at me in all their ragged wispiness.
Now that my curiosity has gotten loose, I can’t wrangle it back. “Gestures, then? Candles?”
He leans an elbow on the table to regard me with a quizzical furrow of his brow. “What do you think magic is?”
My shoulders jump toward my ears and back. How to describe what I imagine so vividly and vaguely at the same time? “Clouds of purple smoke. Flashes of lightning. Mighty winds—”
“Not what it looks like. What is magic?”
My excitement dampens at last. He raises a good question—one a wiser student might have asked him first, and now I’m wrestling with it like a man trying to yank his cloak through a door that closed on it and locked to boot. “It’s something powerful and out of the ordinary. It’s…I don’t know. Something you can’t explain.”
He nods as if I’ve given him insight into his own topic of expertise. “An apt description. The magic you seem to think I do is actually quite an ordinary occurrence, readily replicable without any special power. But what you assume is ordinary may in fact be more magical than you know.”
At this point, the heavenly wisdom should descend on me through his words, but instead I have only confusion. Perhaps alchemy will prove harder than I thought.
“Tell me about that girl over there.” He points out the window with his chin while his hands go back to grinding turmeric until they look smothered in powdered sunshine.
“The baker’s daughter?” The room has become so stuffy. I pull on the collar of my jerkin. “She’s nice. She was in my year at school.” I turn to the alchemist with wide eyes. “Are you upset that I talked to her when I should’ve rushed back with the water? I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.”
“Relax.” He pats my shoulder, sending up a puff of yellow. “So you fancy her?”
“Well….” There go my words again, scattered throughout the heavens.
He chuckles, measures the turmeric into his mixture, then pours the lot into a fist-sized gourd jar. “This medicine is for her mother. I want you to deliver it for me. But first you need to go gather some flowers.”
I take a deep breath. I and my words have escaped the topic together. “What kind?”
“A variety. Use your judgment.” He plops the gourd in my hand.
Is this a test, that I should know the kind of flowers he needs? I review all the herbs in this mixture, in case any of them bloom in the meadow. None stand out to me. I need a clue. “But what are they for?”
“They’ll show you what magic really is.” He gestures with open palm to the door, settles into his chair, and closes his eyes, which forces an end to my questions. He cracks an eyelid open as I pull the door shut behind me, so I suspect he doesn’t want to sleep as much as get me out from underfoot. Maybe I’ve used up my question quota, and now I can’t get the answer to the important one—what I’m supposed to do.
I make my way through the streets toward the meadow in any case. I tuck the gourd safe inside my jerkin. I suppose if merely a few varieties of flowers grow in the meadow at this time of year, I can pick one of each to guarantee success.
I stop short just outside the town walls. The meadow spreads before me with countless flowers, as if spring dumped out her complete cornucopia for me. I pick in a frenzy to get through them all. So many colors of blooms—and then when I come closer, I find even the ones of the same hue don’t match shape or size. I could pick all day and still not gather one of each! A passerby along the road watches me for a moment, and my cheeks heat up since I must resemble a schoolgirl set on making an elaborate daisy chain.
I need some way to narrow down the selection. The flowers will tell me what magic is. I wander from clump to clump, but none of them come across as particularly magical to me. I run through everything leading up to his instruction—all the ingredients we touched, all the information he shared—until he asked about the baker’s daughter.
I stare down at a spray of broad white flowers with brown centers like half-full teacups. He didn’t say to pick the flowers for him. Girls like flowers—and I’m about to deliver herbs to one. Not just any one—the one. A smile steals across my face.
Now I bound from patch to patch of flowers in search of the prettiest, without stickers or those stalks that appear fuzzy but instead prickle. I stuff my hand full until the flowers all but drip out of the bouquet, then turn back to the town. I keep my feet from running across the square, but only just. I hold the flowers behind my back and fix my eyes on my prize.
I get all the way to her counter, and she still hasn’t noticed me as she unloads a batch of fresh rolls from a tray. I clear my throat. My crazy grin still plasters over my face, and it hurts, because it’s so wide and because once again, I have nothing to say. We stare at each other for a moment. Her gaze keeps flicking back to my smile and my concealed hand like she expects some sort of practical joke.
Then I remember the gourd. “This is for your mother. From the alchemist.”
She takes it. Sadness wells deep in her eyes. “Thank you.”
I bring my hand from behind my back to reveal the splash of color. “And this is for you. From me.”
A light comes into her eyes, like sunrise over the horizon, when she reaches out to accept the random mess of plants I’ve cobbled together in her honor. She lifts the flowers to her face and breathes deep. And then the miracle happens.
She smiles. At me.
And I understand. No need for years of apprenticeship or special incantations. Of all the extraordinary, inexplicable powers in the universe, I’ve now identified one. This feeling—when the girl I love smiles at me—is magic.